Crime & Courts

D.A. agrees to retry man in 1991 Charlotte rape case

Prosecutors have agreed to retry a man who was sentenced to life in prison for a 1991 Charlotte rape but whose case was later shown to involve flawed testimony by an elite FBI forensic unit.

The Washington Post reported in April that flawed testimony by the unit affected at least 2,500 cases nationwide, including that of Timothy Scott Bridges. He was convicted of raping an 83-year-old disabled woman in her Charlotte home in May 1989. The woman has since died.

The Justice Department and FBI formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in the unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000, the Post reported.

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project.

The Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office reviewed Bridges’ case and found that the analyst’s testimony contained information that the FBI now says would constitute “improper testimony,” District Attorney Andrew Murray said Thursday.

“The criminal justice system is constantly evolving with advances in science, and any time the D.A.’s Office is made aware of cases in which inappropriate scientific testimony contributed to a conviction, prosecutors have an obligation to act,” Murray’s office said.

He said his office “went to great lengths” to find the woman’s relatives and let them know what’s happening.

The victim lived between The Plaza and North Davidson Street, the Observer reported at the time. She was hospitalized for three months and later lived in a nursing home.

The woman, who died in 1990 of unrelated causes, gave varying descriptions of her attacker and never identified Bridges, according to the Post.

A Charlotte forensic expert, among hundreds trained by the FBI before 2000, matched two hairs at the crime scene to Bridges, then 22, according to court papers.

The expert asserted there was only a 1-in-1,000 chance that they might have come from someone else, testimony the FBI review states “exceeds the limits of the science,” according to the Post.

No accepted research exists on how often hair from different people may appear the same. The FBI now uses DNA testing in combination with hair examination.

“If offered today, the hair evidence would be inadmissible, and without the hair evidence there was insufficient evidence to convict Mr. Bridges,” wrote his attorney, Lauren Miller, with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services.

In 1992, the N.C. Court of Appeals upheld Bridges’ conviction and life sentence, the Observer reported at the time.

Judges Jack Cozort and Sarah Parker agreed that a statistician should not have been allowed to testify that there was only a 1-in-1,000 chance that a hair found at the scene came from someone other than Bridges. They ruled the mistake was not serious enough to call for a new trial.

While agreeing to Bridges’ motion for a retrial, prosecutors said Thursday they’re still trying to determine how to move forward with the case. Prosecutors and police are trying to find whether any witnesses are still available, for instance.

Murray said his office is unaware of any other Mecklenburg County convictions in which similar issues exist, and the office has not been contacted about any other such cases.

Staff Researcher Maria David contributed.

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak